5 years ago

The travel industry can be absurd, so don’t add to the suck factor – do something crazy instead

It was like a breath of fresh air and a punch in the face all at the same time, if that’s possible.

This was the moment when Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, started into the final minute of his keynote at the PhoCusWright Conference last November in front of nearly 1,500 travel executives and entrepreneurs.

This audience is arguably one of the most ego-filled and experience-heavy of any in the industry, and is a tough crowd for sentiments that can be easily brushed off with an eye-roll or a wave of the “welcome to the big leagues, rookie” hand of tenured travel industry indifference.

But for those still planning to stick around a decade or two from now and run this place while those eye-rollers are long gone sipping on pina coladas beachside, what Chesky said might have piqued your interest just as it did my own:

“For us to win, nobody has to lose… I heard that there was this stupid thing on the screen that had Brian Chesky versus Brian Sharples. I think that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. This idea that there has to be a battle between us and HomeAway, or between us and the hotel industry, is absurd.”

“It’s not about us versus anyone else, the battle is about [all of us] versus the economic environment that is changing so fast… I hope to see us all back here in five years… for us [AirBnB] to win, everyone else can win because ultimately the travel industry is undervalued… it’s so much more than we ever thought [it could be].”

It struck a chord that was buried deep under now five of my eight total years in travel where dysfunction has seemingly blended into some strange version of our industry’s definition of normal.

The same perspective is true for many of the most talented of my peers – both startup divas and corporate types alike.

We all together suffer from the same disease that was birthed many decades ago industry-wide amidst a stodgy, secretive and silo-driven corporate culture from the airline hayday of the 60s and 70s.

I know what you’re thinking: has that much really changed? And I think the answer to that is partially why Chesky was shocked enough by what he witnessed to call us out on our crap.

My Chesky-inspired challenge to us all this new year

His intent and underlying motivation behind that statement I can’t fully speculate on beyond his actual words, but for me personally his statement highlighted something incredibly important in my own eyes based on which I wanted to challenge us all in this new year.

In my personal experience, interacting with peers from hundreds of companies in travel – both large in size and tiny in startup nature – I’ve learned a ton in five years thanks to so many willing to share what they know when asked.

But there’s also the other side of the coin – there are few in this industry I’ve found readily and willing to admit to not knowing the answer to just about any question, not having mastered a topic area or not having thought of already that idea just shared, only in a much bigger and better form than you even considered over ten years ago.

We’re all so darn defensive and prideful it hurts – both us and our customers.

And thus, I’ve found as a result that there are so many willing to tell you what they know, which can be great, but very few people left still willing to ask questions, willing to form new relationships previously not considered, or voluntarily open themselves up to engage in honest debates with opinions 180 degrees opposite of their own.

But that is where the magic happens. That’s where we learn, collaborate and resolve to do something better… to achieve our true value as an industry.

The most valuable thing startups have done for our industry

Personally, I believe that’s the single most brilliant example startups have set for the rest of us by infiltrating our industry – their willingness to ask questions shamelessly and listen closely to every word in every answer seems like such an obviously valuable task to even the most mediocre entrepreneur.

But to those working in one of the many hundreds of companies whose peak of success was defined by actions taken when leg warmers were first popular, this skill doesn’t seem so obvious.

What we witness all too often is likely what Chesky saw – posturing, criticizing, misdirected competition, and misplaced arrogance.

Yet, what we rarely witness is the one thing I believe companies on that bubble between reinvention and extinction desperately need: a humble, collaborative spirit with an unquenchable thirst for new knowledge, desire to seek out creative partnerships and a relentless focus on less talk, more execution.

Back to square one… with new dancing partners

The difference will be in which established companies and emerging players were both willing to roll up their sleeves to plan the next decade or two of success by stepping back into square one together.

Who was man or woman enough to go back to a place where egos don’t exist, humility reigns, questions and answers abound, collaboration is rampant, learning is the default state of mind and where the future will be defined by the companies willing to step through it all collaboratively and creatively together.

This has little to do with technology or business models or corporate strategies, and everything to do with our mindset and approach to openly working with others to get creative in solving new and increasingly challenging customer problems.

Approaching their needs with reckless abandon and relentless determination while shamelessly asking questions every step of the way is one heck of a way to start.

Don’t add to the suck-factor

In 2013, be that guy or girl who doesn’t add to this industry’s suck-factor. We have plenty.

Resist the habits embedded for decades to offer the first criticisms, or to snub a meeting with someone who can do nothing for you, or refuse to learn something from those we’ve historically disliked or disagreed with.

Instead, choose to be one of the people connecting dots for others, mentoring rookies who don’t know their way around this industry, and simply working toward making travel what it has the potential to collaboratively become for travelers, for suppliers, for agents, for corporations – for whomever your customer may be.

That’s the kind of legacy I hope we each being to leave around here and the kind of progressive maturity I’m certain someone like Chesky would be blown away to ultimately witness in five years.

Our own worst enemy no more – go do something crazy

As he said, our industry is severely undervalued – he’s right. And we’re our own worst enemy to realizing our true potential for all the reasons I’ve already belabored.

So, this year, how will you take steps to shake off the anti-collaborative habits of our past?

Go do something crazy.

Explore working with someone new or a company you never would have dreamed of talking to just five years ago. It’s the unexpected partnerships that are almost always the most valuable.

Ask a question or two to a startup you called out of the blue. I promise they’ll call you back and gladly answer your questions, but be prepared to also answer a few of their own – with a smile.

Contact that jerk who wrote the piece-of-crap editorial about you or your company and sincerely try to understand & learn from his perspective without calling him a name he’ll quote you on next time.

Dare to ask any startup what’s wrong with our industry, or introduce yourself to the CEO of your most hated competitor.

The perspective from which we make the most critical decisions for our own company’s future will be as flawed as the corporate walls are thick that separate us from outside viewpoints.

With that in mind, we must invite and embrace new perspectives into our point-of-view this year – they are a hidden goldmine of valuable insight most brush off all too soon as simply “wrong”.

But in fact they open the door to unforeseen collaboration opportunities that very well could push us forward as an industry or define our second powerful wind as an established company.

In 2013, simply put, let’s commit to shake off the ghosts of travel’s silo-ridden past, find a new goldmine of unique industry insights and help someone else do the same… or, kindly, get the heck out of the way.

NB: Dummy/pacifier image via Shutterstock.

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Sarah Kennedy Ellis

About the Writer :: Sarah Kennedy Ellis

Sarah Kennedy Ellis is VP of Marketing for Sabre Hospitality Solutions.

At Sabre since 2007, Sarah has spent time working in a variety of divisions including everything from strategy and product development to social media marketing and R&D.

She was selected as one of the first members of PhoCusWright's inaugural "Class of 35" in 2009, recognizing the top 35 young leaders under the age of 35 in travel.

She also is invited to speak at a variety of technology conferences & industry events each year on topics including emerging technology and innovation management.

The views expressed by Sarah on Tnooz are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Sabre Holdings, its partners, customers or subsidiaries.



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  1. salah benhamouda

    There are a number of ways to enter the travel industry, but one of the safest… … in this industry, investing in a travel franchise business is a good option for you to … You will need a good location to where clients can come and meet with you.

  2. Edward - LoungeUp

    A fantastic article, Sarah. Thank you for the advice you have shared in your comments, as well.

    Working for a startup providing a technological solution to the hospitality sector has given me a well-positioned perspective on the evolution of the industry as a whole. Hotels are opening their minds to the ways that technology can improve the guest experience and provide supplementary revenue. It is so refreshing to see this change in attitude in a sector that, as you mention, has traditionally been quite defensive. We are passionate about forming partnerships with people that can improve our solution and amongst the travel startups that we have encountered, there seems to be a real conviviality and team spirit.

  3. Douglas Rice

    Sarah, this was an excellent article. It is absolutely the disruptive thinkers – the ones the conventional players think are too naïve about the industry to ask the right questions – who become the change agents. Not enough of them succeed, because too many of the established players don’t take the time to challenge their own assumptions.

    When HTNG was formed ten years ago, one of the important governance decisions we made was that all member companies – large, small, established, startup, hotel, technology provider, consultant – it doesn’t matter – would have the same voice in our problem-solving working groups. The upshot is that the smaller players get a voice in the discussion vastly disproportionate to their market positions. We had an explicit objective of making it easier for disruptive ideas, often from new entrants, to succeed.

    That has been a great enabler for startup companies and products, with different and often unconventional views of how to solve some of the technology challenges facing hotels. Over the years, more than a few of these companies have found long-term success by starting a discussion in an industry body such as OpenTravel or HTNG with a group of industry experts with a question like “I’m new to this industry and I probably just don’t understand, but why doesn’t anyone do ‘x’ instead of ‘y’, when ‘x’ seems so much smarter?” The smart veterans, thinking to themselves “that’s crazy,” politely start explaining why ‘y’ is the only way to do it. But someone, often another veteran, starts questioning bits and pieces of that logic, noting that ‘y’ isn’t perfect, and starts tearing apart one or two of the underlying assumptions to the presumed rightness of ‘y’ Others jump in and embellish or add new issues.

    The new kid sits there absorbing it all, not having made any of the prior bets and investments that limit the options of the entrenched players to respond, and learns that while ‘x’ might not be feasible, ‘y’ has lots of problems as well. The new kid (or someone else who was part of the conversation) incorporates the key points, takes them back to the lab, develops a new product ‘z’, brings it back and says “what about something like this?”

    Great company leaders seek out these types of discussions, make sure their companies are present, and take the discussions to heart. Whether the result is a new product from a small company coming to market a few month later, or preparedness by a market leader for a strategic shift in that might be 10 years in the making, they help ensure that their companies are ready to capitalize on market and technology trends that will do anything BUT remain unchanged.

  4. Charles Ehredt

    Agree with all said above.

    What I thought Brian said that would stick in the minds of industry veterans was the vision that 10-20 years from now, a lot fewer people would desire to own a home or be permanent employees. They will just move about the world staying in other people´s homes and working virtually.

    In that world, what will the travel industry look like? What ¨services¨ will these people need that haven´t been invented yet? Even if it was only 2% of the population – that is a huge market !

    As an outsider myself – but someone who has studied many other industries, I think we are well behind the curve in providing the open solutions that can help the entire industry expand much more. Kind of a shame (but big opportunity for those bold enough to open up).

    • Psycho

      Well, that said we have one more travel type aside from leisure or corporate travel. It may be called travel as a lifestyle and yes, it’s really interesting what online travel industry can offer for the increasing number of those who spend their life on wheels.
      It’s interesting how the increasing connectivity of the world drives 2 tendencies that may seem opposite but in fact are part of one. People in fact have less to move to do their jobs (many things can be done at home), thus they have possibility to move somewhere they want when they want it.
      In fact. I think that the whole online sphere (and online travel sphere as well) should support these 2 tendencies and that’s what I want to devote my life to.

  5. Valyn Perini

    Thanks for the kind words Sarah, Timothy and to Psycho for the link to the post. As someone who has been in the industry for more than seven years, I can say positively that collaboration begets innovation, and paranoia generally begets jerks.

    In addition to a collaborative spirit, a bit of personal and organizational maturity is a must. AirBnB has succeeded in some part because of the organization’s ability to overcome some very public challenges, and while there are probably some challenges still to come based on their model, Brian Chesky’s charming and grown-up presence will help AirBnB manage them. Individuals and organizations with an “I’m so f*&king smart I’m going to revolutionize this backwards industry” attitude might get some airtime or impress the investors, but it’s hard to collaborate with that.

    Our Travel Traction event was started because we wanted to extend the collaborative model we use at OpenTravel – every idea has value, and everyone should be able to have a say. Not every idea will succeed obviously but they’re all worth something to someone, and as long as someone is willing to listen, they’re worth voicing – we’re not worth much as an industry if we continue to shut out new voices or crazy ideas. In the end, the market with be the judge, not the analysts, consultants or strategists.

    The next Travel Traction events will be in Berlin at ITB on Tuesday March 5, and in San Diego, California on Monday April 29. If you’re interested, email me directly or keep an eye on http://www.opentravel.org.

    And don’t be a jerk!

  6. Phil

    Love the article (and long winded comment reply) Sarah

    This is a great mindset to start 2013 in and it’s refreshing to hear that the idea of working more closely together as an industry is so popular. There is a lot to be said for passion (often hand in hand with necessity to achieve profit and results) and the role it plays in the industry for startups, driving people to ‘do something crazy’ and to help people working together for the benefit of the industry as a whole.

    I particularly liked the paragraph:

    Yet, what we rarely witness is the one thing I believe companies on that bubble between reinvention and extinction desperately need: a humble, collaborative spirit with an unquenchable thirst for new knowledge, desire to seek out creative partnerships and a relentless focus on less talk, more execution.

    Thanks and have a great 2013 and if you think we can work together in any way let me know!

  7. Bart van Poll

    Great inspiring article. Totally agree!

  8. CK1

    Thx a lot for taking the time to answer me. I’ll look into what you recommended. As an entrepreneur I’m always interested in learning. See you in Vegas for Open Travel.

    Best regards,

    Keep doing great posts!


  9. CK1

    Great article that made me think about all the opportunities that our industry has to offer and the great persons I still have to meet.
    I’ve founded my startup http://www.shelterous.com one year ago and it is sometimes very tough to go through the doors to talk with industry professionals and bigger players. Do you have a “best approach” and do you apply what you preach in your everyday life?

    Best regards,

    • Sarah Kennedy Ellis

      Thanks so much for the comment & questions.

      I actually would highly recommend following OpenTravel Alliance, which is a non-profit made up of members from every corner of the industry (GDS, airlines, hospitality, etc) committed to helping enable standards & connections across multiple systems in the travel industry to support the needs of today’s travel professionals & end-travelers.

      Valyn Perini, OpenTravel’s CEO (and also a Tnooz Node), typically was getting inquiries from startups almost weekly as of last year about how to get started in this industry, what data sources exist where, etc.

      She actually published a “Questions Startups Ask” post on Tnooz last August as a result, right before boldly launching the very first OpenTravel Travel Traction event, dedicated to providing industry knowledge & answers to key questions from startups & new entrants. This event – dead seriously – offered some of the most insightful speakers & interesting discussion I’ve seen at almost any event this year… and it’s just $25 for startups or entrepreneurs. (http://www.opentravel.org/News/ArticleView.aspx?ArticleID=148)

      They are hosting the second Travel Traction event in conjunction with ITB Berlin this March, and I highly recommend attending if you are already planning to be there. It’s a great starting point to navigate your way through the industry. Even if you aren’t planning to be there, the event is so cheap, use what’s left to buy your ticket to Berlin, no?

      With regard to how I apply what I preach in everyday life…

      Personally, being on the side of a large established company, my battles are very unique from yours – not harder or easier – just different. While you clamor to learn & seek out contacts that can help you find your place in the travel world, my challenges revolve around pushing an established, historically successful company out of its comfort zone to prepare us for a future when the growth & success we enjoy today may need to be achieved in new and unique ways from what we’ve always known.

      If you boil it down to what I believe is most important… I embrace great personal risk for sake of enabling significant, long-term evolutionary outcomes that could potentially change or optimize the trajectory of my company in a meaningful way. I am an idealistic idiot who loves capitalism and is inspired by the potential of tomorrow’s corporate america.

      I don’t believe my ambitions for what Sabre is capable of growing into tomorrow will come from me hiding in the crowd, so I don’t shy away from being blunt, honest and challenge us to do more within our own capabilities and also by extending our perspectives outside of the headquarters walls any way possible.

      Call me crazy – many do – but I do live and die by the belief every day that it’s worth taking big personal risks for the good of an organization you believe in. A few examples…

      PhoCusWright Class of 35 was birthed out of an arguably bold/irreverent blog post I wrote challenging PCW to enable young leaders to connect & collaborate together earlier in our careers.

      I also encouraged the launch of Tnooz’s Gen Y Collective, with the goal of enabling the Gen Y voice to be heard in travel, and for those involved to connect & share views with one another. Even though that initiative trailed off, mine and Evan Konwiser’s status as Tnooz Nodes has lived on, which is absolutely the most incredibly diverse, intelligent and simply educational group of individuals I could possibly have the chance to engage in productive dialogue with. Tnooz has actually been my primary source of insight & personal perspective on this industry… and I believe it’s an incredibly valuable one.

      There is nothing I enjoy more than listening to a Timothy O. Dunne rant about what’s wrong with this industry… Valyn Perini correcting him when he’s wrong… Gene sharing his wisdom from the publishing/media industry and into travel today… the plight of the travel startup from Alex Kremer & Stephen Joyce… I’m lucky, no doubt. But there are plenty of nodes all over the industry just like this with whom you are also likely to find intellectually challenging discussions & debates like they offer me.

      This comment is now longer than my post, so I’ll quit here… but my advice is to be bold in all you do.

      When your gut tells you taking a step out into the unknown with people you aren’t certain will embrace you is scary… when you need to take uncomfortable actions to find those who are willing to teach you, help you, listen to you… whatever the case may be… do it anyways. You’ll learn something either way – whether they turn out to be helpful, as most will, or whether you just met one of the insecure a-holes you should know to avoid throughout your travel career. There are a few of those also.

      Good news is, the earth is round, this industry is small, and assuming your memory is long, you’ll have the chance to show them grace one day down the road when they had nothing to offer you earlier on other than crap. This is the kind of change good people can enable.

      [stepping back down off of the soap box now…] 🙂

      Very best of luck to you, and don’t forget Travel Traction as a great resource to start!


  10. Damar Christopher

    Thanks so much for this insightful article Sarah. I was present during Brian’s talk and it was then that I started following him on Twitter. His perspective reminds me of Dave Logan from “Tribal Leadership” fame. A stage 5 company never sees other people or companies as competitors; they only focus on prevalent issues and challenges within an industry or society. Well said by Mr. Chesky and kudos to you for not letting this key moment be forgotten.

  11. Psycho

    I’m also a newcomer to the industry and, you know, I don’t think it sucks. 🙂 It’s so interesting to work in online travel and people seem to be so open-minded. Maybe it’s because I’m lucky – I don’t know…

  12. Wayne

    Very insightful article. I love the candor and the challenge. Much more can be gained by working together. As the founder of a startup pivoting towards travel, I’m glad to see there’s some potential for openness.

  13. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    I admire Sarah’s fortitude in writing this piece. Kudos to her for it.

    However, one of the problems that we come across all the time is a lack of understanding of the issues. Chesky speech was somewhat arrogant in defining the enemy as a “the economic model”. There are rules and laws in place. Putting out a service/tool/web site that permits indeed encourages someone to break the law is highly irresponsible. I want to draw a clear distinction between changing economic models and breaking the law.

    That said Sarah’s encouragement to speak to your worst enemy in focus on collaboration should be a welcomed one. I for one am ALWAYS open to speaking to competitors and collaborators alike. We do have forums for this such as Open Travel, Open Axis and in particular Travel Traction. Please support these efforts as it does lead to a better world.

    We should not just dream but also DO!


  14. george lynch

    Sarah! What a bracing blast of air you are, I appreciate your insight and perspective, We can do so much more as an industry. Love the talent and insight thru every sector of travel. Let’s take your words to heart and go make greatness happen

  15. Sarah Kennedy Ellis

    Honestly can’t say thanks enough for the inspiring words all of you have shared who already have had the same desire & passion to tackle this challenge head-on, and for some of you already are doing it long before I wrote this post.

    I also must say… if you saw the original piece I sent to our resident master-of-wordsmithery, Kevin May, you’d not be so generous with the ‘well-written’ compliments. 😉 It is always he behind the scenes who makes us Nodes look half-way competent, which in reality is usually far from the truth.

    Many thanks to Kevin for turning my ramblings into coherent thoughts.

  16. Alex Kremer

    Awesome piece, Sarah. Completely spot on. There’s so much wasted opportunity from people just not talking to each other that it’s not even funny anymore. Thanks for calling out the problem, and if even one new “crazy” partnership ensues from the above, the industry will be better off as a whole. Here’s to a crazy 2013!

  17. Lara Edwards

    What an utterly fantastic article! Wow! Both content and writing are top class. Thanks,

  18. Eva Gómez-Pallete

    Needed to be said and you have done it so well. Congrats from Spain!

  19. Sarah Fazendin

    So well written Sarah!

    My new start-up will disrupt distribution in our first key regional market, and we have had lengthy conversations about how we can work with other players currently trying to do the same thing in this market. Competitors? Partners? Sometimes it’s not always black and white.

    So here’s to asking more questions and forming new relationships in 2013!

  20. Bruce Rosard

    The Unicorn strikes again! You go Sarah, this is brilliant.

    • Sarah Kennedy Ellis

      As always you are way too generous, but I appreciate very much the kinds words. However, I must give credit where it is due to Eugene the mini-Unicorn your team gifted me way back in ’09, who did most of the typing… he’s quite the little wordsmith.

  21. Gavin

    Great article Sarah, I also was impressed with Cheskys speech and agree with a lot of what you’ve written here.

    I have already done one of your “go do something crazy” thingy’s…

    I introduced myself to the CEO of one of our major competitors………. it was one of the most cringy things I’ve ever done, it ranks up there with the time I called my senior school teacher “mum” and the time I got a ring stuck on my finger and had to go to A&E to have it cut off (ring not finger), I was in my late 20’s!
    In hindsight it wasn’t so bad but at the time I was praying for the ground to swallow me whole….it didn’t!

    • Sarah Kennedy Ellis

      Haha, thanks for sharing that story, Gavin. I actually had a similar experience recently myself. I had about 10 minutes to pep myself up to do it during a conference we both were attending and coincidentally sat next to each other during. Once the speaker concluded, I forced myself to extend a hand, introduce myself and thank him for ‘making my job a little more interesting’ over the last few years. And I genuinely meant that.

      Funny thing was, the result of that introduction led to a story he shared with me about the team I currently run from 1998, which was an incredibly interesting piece of history I had never been told even after five years at the very company where that history was made… too much turnover had taken place for the story to live on and reach me.

      But because I got up the nerve to start a conversation with someone who two years ago I would have laughed at anyone for suggesting I ever speak to cordially, I learned something about my own team’s history that was really fascinating, insightful & valuable to me personally and to my company.

      Funny how that tends to work out, isn’t it? 🙂

      Thanks again for the comment, Gavin!

  22. Mike Whitehead

    I’m currently researching my own start up aimed at connecting destinations with their travellers. I really took a lot from this article as I will certainly need to ask questions as I go along learning from my mistakes at every step. However, the flip side of this is that I will happily share my learnings with whomever wishes to hear it.
    I’m new to this industry – I see this as one of my key strengths as I will see things from an end user perspective and not weighed down with, dare I suggest, any bad habits/views which may cloud my judgement (believe me, I had plenty of these from my previous background).

    Really enjoyed this article – thank you for posting.

    Mike Whitehead.

    • eddmc

      Hi Mike

      Perhaps you can leave some contact details if you want to be contacted? (Use the website field)



    • Drew Meyers

      There is certainly something to be said for being naive about an industry…I’m new to the travel industry as well and I like not being weighed down by past occurrences/experiences/relationships within the industry.

  23. Jan Peeters

    This is one of the best, sharpest pieces I’ve read this year – and last year. The travel industry needs fresh views like Chesky’s. Thanks for this angle, Sarah.


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